Saturday, October 04, 2008

New X-Men: Wrapping It Up

In his New X-Men pitch, Grant Morrison wrote about wanting to make the X-books accessible to new readers, while still respecting the continuity of the past, to make them post-human, sexy and stylish. His conception of the X-Men isn’t so much a superhero team as it is a model for evolution, both biologically, but also culturally. Not all these concepts pay off in every arc, nobody’s sexy in Kordey’s world, and the time spent with the Shiar has little to do with the way that mutants are building their own culture. But, taken as a whole, he fulfills most of his goals, and, most importantly, he makes it feel like these events matter, that the characters are real people who feel the weight of what they’ve been through, and will grow and change as a result of the events they’ve experienced.

That, more than anything else, is what makes this such a special run, it’s what makes his run feel definitive, while other writers’ feel like fanfic. The beauty of Claremont’s original run is that you could feel the characters evolving as he wrote them. Jean became one of the book’s most compelling characters, then died. Scott, the longest running X-man, left the team and got married. He’d still come back from time to time, but you got the sense that his life went on offscreen, and there was no doubt that Claremont would come up with new characters who were just as compelling. Think of the transition from the Mutant Massacre to Fall of the Mutants. Kitty and Kurt, two of Claremont’s finest characters, left the team, but Dazzler, Psylocke and Longshot ably replaced them. I don’t think those characters were as strong as Kitty or Kurt, but I liked the fact that the universe expanded, and characters moved off stage when their stories were done.

By the time of “X-Tinction Agenda,” everybody’s tending back towards normal, the corporate sanctioned team of X-Men was in place, with Jean and Scott at the head, the Professor overseeing everything from his wheelchair and Wolverine as the bad boy on the side. Morrison said that he read all the X-Men TPBs that were in print before starting work on the title, and most of what is in print from Claremont is the crossovers and the Dark Phoenix era stuff. He doesn’t seem to love Paul Smith era Claremont, or later Claremont in the way that I do, and it makes sense that most of the mythology he’d draw on would be from the Dark Phoenix era. You can fit the whole Scott/Maddy Pryor thing into Morrison’s conception of the character, but in some ways, it works better without him ever having been through that darker experience.

Anyway, writers after Claremont struggled to make an impact on the title. There’s very few new characters introduced after 1991 who made any sort of an impact in the X-Men world, and very little character evolution. You could easily jump from 1991’s X-Men #3 to New X-Men #114 without any trouble following what’s going on. I’ve read some mid 90s X-Men books, and generally speaking, you don’t get the sense that the characters are ever going to have meaningful change happen to them. Most of the writers who did try to change things were held back by Marvel, and even Claremont himself failed miserably to tell good stories.

Luckily, Morrison had the combination of his skill as a writer and the corporate leeway to tell the kind of stories he wanted to, to do a kind of self contained run on the title that could radically change things and leave up to the next writer to figure out what’s next. I’ve read a little bit of Joss Whedon’s X-Men, a full read is forthcoming, but I don’t really need any more after the end of “Here Comes Tomorrow.” That feels like a fine place for the X-Men narrative to end, in the same way that X-Men #3 did. Obviously their lives will go on and the stories will continue, but I don’t need anymore. Part of the reason I liked the early parts of Mike Carey’s X-Men is that he’s dealing with a totally different corner of the X-Men universe than Grant did, and I can appreciate that book on its own terms rather than as a continuation of New X-Men. But, still, that book doesn’t come close to what Morrison did.

I would agree with people who say that Morrison’s run is uneven. Reading the beginning, I was thinking that it wasn’t as good as I remember it. “E For Extinction” is very cool, but it feels largely conceptual. X-Men books should be messy and emotionally overwrought, not the perfectly sculpted cool of that first arc. “E For Extinction” is pretty close to flawless, it’s certainly the arc I’d give to someone who’d never read X-Men, but much like Claremont’s run, the deeper we go into the world and the characters, the more fascinating they become. The first year on the title is hit and miss for me, with the Quitely issues working great, and the Kordey fill ins really draining momentum. “Imperial” is the nadir of the run, from both a writing and artistic perspective, salvaged primarily by a fantastic last issue.

The second year expands the world and changes the focus from fighting for survival to building a new society. I love the three issue Fantomex arc, that to me is the epitome of sexy post human X-Men, while still working on a character and emotional level. The two Jean Paul Leon issues are also fantastic. The “Riot” storyline played a bit weaker than I remembered it. It’s still great in a lot of ways but could have been paced a little better. And, having seen the way Quitely art looks in All Star Superman, it’s clear how poorly it was finished here. The second year is where the dream comes to fruition, and subsequently starts to become undone. People will always rebel against even the most perfect world. The year culminates with another flawed, but at times brilliant storyline, “Murder at the Mansion.” That storyline doesn’t work so well conceptually, but on a character level, the Emma Frost stuff is as good as anything in the run.

The third year is where everything seems to fall apart. After the fun detour to “Assault on Weapon Plus,” Magneto takes control of the book and spins it upside down to “Planet X.” I wrote more about this storyline, and “Here Comes Tomorrow” than I did about the entire rest of the run. I think that’s a testament to just how huge both stories are, and how good a job they do of synthesizing all the themes that have come before. “Planet X” has its flaws, but there’s so much to think about, so much emotional engagement that I consider it easily one of the best stories in the run, and an important story in X-Men history. “E For Extinction” makes a lot more sense, but it doesn’t hit me in the way that “Planet X” does.

“Planet X” reminds me of the Doctor Who season finale from this year. It’s the kind of story I always wanted to read when I first found out about X-Men, and it feels almost unhealthy to get something that hits so many things that I want. Like those Doctor Who episodes, it’s frequently nonsensical, but I don’t care, I’d rather have the insane brilliance of the story than almost anything else.

And, reading it again, “Here Comes Tomorrow” was a revelation, an echo of “Planet X” that somehow manages to synthesize all the central concepts from the run into one fantastic final story. Morrison goes out on a high note, his motley crue of future X-Men torn apart, only to be saved by Phoenix.

New X-Men has a special pull for me, since it’s a combination of my favorite corporate comics property and my favorite comics writer. I can really enjoy Morrison’s work on JLA or Final Crisis, but I don’t have that childhood connection to these characters. I’m frequently at a loss when faced with a mass army of characters moving in and out of the work without identification, and if you’re not familiar with X-Men, I’m sure seeing Jamie Madrox or Bishop suddenly appear is pretty confusing. But, I know all those people, I’ve read hundreds of issues of X-books and I know the mythology he’s referring to. I’m as big a fan of the Claremont run as anyone, and this is the only run on the book I think is comparable to what Claremont accomplished.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Canceling a Show

I’m often baffled when a network will invest all the money to develop and advertise a new series, then cancel it after one episode. If you thought it was going to be that bad, why make it in the first place, and if you really believe in it, why would weak episode one numbers make you cancel the whole thing? If you’ve got more episodes made, at least give them a chance. After all, Seinfeld started out as a very low rated series, in today’s world, it would probably have been cancelled.

Ironically, as a viewer, I fall victim to that same one episode snap judgment I’m criticizing. I’ve been kind of backed up with TV to watch lately. At the start of the Fall season, I was planning, or at least thinking about, watching Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Fringe, Sons of Anarchy, The Office, 30 Rock, Pushing Daisies, True Blood and Mad Men, along with catching on Pushing Daisies season one on DVD, and going through Berlin Alexanderplatz and the rest of Swingtown, Generation Kill and In Treatment I never watched over the summer. So, it’s just way too much stuff to watch in any kind of timely fashion, and with so many series, priorities become clear. I very rarely actively drop a show, Lost is probably the only show I’ve consciously said I’m not watching this any more too.

More frequently when I “cancel” a show, it happens due to a subconscious revelation of my lack of interest in the show. I’ll get a backlog of unwatched episodes, to the point that catching up would require a major time investment, and as the episodes stack up, I’ll eventually decide it’s not worth the time needed to catch up. That’s part of why I don’t like shows that launch with two hour premieres. The reason I gave up on 24 with season six was simply that I started four hours behind, and after a lackluster first couple of hours, I sat on the next couple of episodes, until there were nine aired, and I had no hope of catching up.

If I really like a show, I’ll invariably watch it right after it airs. True Blood, Mad Men or 30 Rock are all a must watch the night of. With The Wire, I would stay up until 3 or 4 AM to see the show when it first was added to the On Demand menu Sunday night. That level of interest is the greatest testament to the show’s quality, that absolute need to see the next episode.

But, what happens on the other end of the spectrum? I’ve got three episodes of Sons of Anarchy unwatched on the DVR. I liked the first episode, and was planning to watch more, but I never felt compelled to continue. There was always something a little better out there, and pretty soon it’ll reach the point where it takes a huge commitment to catch up. I watched the first episode of Fringe and thought, that’s ok, I’ll give it a couple more episodes. But, there’s always a cost to watching a show. The hour spent watching Fringe means I’m not able to catch up on a better show. It was a different landscape before TV on DVD, now Fringe not only has to compete against its timeslot, and other shows on TV today, it’s got to compete against every TV show ever made. Sure, Fringe may be ok, but is it going to top Berlin Alexanderplatz? I doubt it. It’s just not good enough to be worth my time, hence one episode was enough.

Right now, Sarah Connor is on the edge for me. I watched the first four episodes when they aired last year, and then “cancelled” the show due to lack of interest. I heard good things and caught up on season one in a couple of days on DVD. I’ve been watching season two as it goes, and realizing that the show has diminishing returns. It’s just not that good, and at one point do I cut it off? I’ve got one unwatched episode now, and rather than watch it, I’ve watched episodes of Berlin Alexanderplatz two nights in a row. Will I watch that episode? At this point, I feel like I’m invested in Sarah Connor enough to keep going, but it doesn’t captivate me in the way that the best TV should. It’s in that nebulous gray zone right now where a really bad episode could kill the show forever, or a really good one could put it back to a must watch.

Ultimately, I think it’s good that we live in a world with so many viewing options. For a while there, I felt like I was nearing the end of series to watch, but there’s a lot of great new stuff airing, and still a lot in the past that I want to go through. I’m still planning on watching the rest of Farscape at some point, but that’s another show that swerved in and out of must watch status, ranging from episodes that made me watch the next one immediately to episodes that put me off the show for a couple of weeks. But, Fringe is gone forever, and Sarah Connor could soon follow it off into the darkness of cancellation. Maybe they’ll get better, I would have probably stopped watching The X-Files, Babylon 5 and Buffy after their first season if I didn’t know they’d get better, but in today’s world, most shows don’t get the luxury of time to grow. It’s make or break immediately.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Stand

I read, and loved, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series a few years back. I’ve always been interested in works that combine fantasy elements with a real world setting. I think there’s a tendency to downplay the significance of events that happen in our world. People will accept an epic quest to save the world in The Lord of the Rings or a movie set in the past, but in movies set today, the best we can hope for is a quiet drama about a few peoples’ lives, or an action movie where a government is at stake. Even if it is about saving the world, it’s not presented that way. We devalue the significance of actions in our own world when in reality the things we do can be just as epic and important as any fantasy characters’ actions. So, I was pleased to pick up The Stand and find a story that started with the intention of doing a Lord of the Rings style epic in our world, using the iconography of the modern world to tell an epic story about a battle between the very forces of good and evil itself.

I was already familiar with some of the concepts in the story from The Dark Tower, where Randall Flagg appeared in various guises over the run of the story. Here in The Stand, he functions as one of two poles in the battle between good and evil. King has an uncanny ability to string huge stories together. This thousand page book just flies by, and he builds such a credible world that it really feels like the story could go on forever. There’s two major elements at work in the book, one is the story of the battle between good and evil, the other is the story of people rebuilding society following the catastrophic plague.

The good/evil battle works well enough, though some of it is bogged down by the sort of plot contrivances present in a lot of fantasy stories, namely the reliance on destiny and the hand of god to guide the story rather than character actions. Mother Abagail, despite being an interesting character, functions primarily as a literal deus ex machina, directing the characters and moving the story along to a place where it needs to go. Why does everyone come to Boulder? The story needs them there so that they can rebuild society, but there’s no particular reason, that’s where the dreams about Mother Abagail come in. Similarly, the conflict between Flagg and the Free Zone plays out almost entirely in dreams and visions, outside of Harold and Nadine bombing the town, there’s very little actual conforontation between the groups. And the end, The Stand itself,is slightly anticlimactic, but pretty much anything would be after 900 pages of buildup.

But, I think the intention is less a literal war than a metaphorical one. The actual battle is in the construction of the Free Zone versus Flagg’s Las Vegas. With the world wiped away, the survivors have the chance to build something totally different, and the conflict is whether humanity will choose a better path, or descend into a fascist state. We watch the democratic Free Zone arise, and understand how that world works, with an emphasis on freedom and people taking responsibility for themselves. The seven people on the council take on their responsibility reluctantly, and have no outright desire for power. In contrast, Flagg and his inner circle are all about getting power for themselves, ruling over the world and protecting their own self interest.

When Dayna goes over to Flagg’s society, we get an insight into the way they live. This world isn’t a den of evil, it’s mostly just regular people, unwittingly serving the force of conflict and destruction. I like that Flagg, though he is the embodiment of evil itself, isn’t played as an over the top evil guy. He can play nice, he can act human, and he sells people not with threats, but with promises of how he can help them. In the end, he is destroyed not by a people that betrays him, but by the Trashcan Man’s attempt to show how devoted he is. Flagg’s world is a viable alternative, it can work for some people, but it denies people freedom, he’s bringing back the strict regimentation of our world when people could move on to something different.

Ultimately, the message seems to be that there are some people who just enjoy doing evil, but most people who serve an evil master do so unconsciously. The everyday people in Las Vegas have no real idea what the Free Zone is, they don’t necessarily care about attacking it, but they go along with Flagg because he gives them security and purpose. He is the ultimate parent figure, with him around, nobody has any questions about what they should be doing. It’s a lot easier to govern as a fascist, the people in the Free Zone struggle to assert their authority because they don’t want to be oppressive, and yet, how do you stop people from doing things without oppressing them?

I’m used to film, where we’re lucky for a director to make a film every couple of years, and after doing a few films, most directors stop writing their own material and start doing other peoples’ scripts. That’s why I’m so amazed that King has so many stories to tell and continues to write one or more books pretty much every year. I suppose part of it is lifestyle, as a filmmaker, you need to work with actors, raise funding, and it’s tougher to branch out beyond traditional genres. But still, there’s so many stories and characters within this one book, it’s awe inspiring at times. I think there’s a lot of flaws with the book, ranging from his usual overemphasis on bodily functions, to the weak roles of women within the story, but on the whole, it’s a fantastic piece. By the end, when Tom Cullen comes along to find Stu, and they make it back to the Free Zone, it’s such a powerful feeling, of a journey completed.

For all the philosophical components of the story, what ultimately makes it work is those first 200 pages, which set up the characters and their worlds before the plague. I’m guessing the producers of Lost were inspired by that section of the book, and used it as the basis for their flashback structure. But, the difference is, reading the beginning of the book, I didn’t know where it was going to go, and those stories were just as interesting as people in the postapocalyptic world. I could have read a whole book about Frannie’s struggle with being pregnant, or Larry’s attempt to get clean. But, taking those strong character bases and putting them through the wringer of the plague makes the whole story stronger, so that instead of feeling like the entire purpose of the book, the plague becomes just something that happened to these people, the event to bring all the disparate people together to build a new world.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

New X-Men: "Here Comes Tomorrow" (#151-154)

“Planet X” is on one level a story about how it’s impossible to truly change these corporate icon superhero characters. Morrison can spin the X-Men into a totally different world, one where they’re not even fighting people, they’re just trying to change the world. But, eventually, things will tend back towards the norm, if he didn’t do it, the writer after him would have had them fighting Magneto once again, back as a superhero team.

However, I think the amount of regression in “Planet X” can be a bit overemphasized by some fans. I’d argue it’s one last confrontation with the old paradigm, by defeating Magneto there, they’re proving once and for all that his way doesn’t work, and ensuring the continuation of a new paradigm. In the context of the story itself, the end of the arc isn’t telling us the X-Men are doomed to perpetually fight Magneto, it’s telling us that Magneto has been so utterly defeated he can never really threaten what Charles has built. The immediate follow up to Morrison’s X-Men may have been Joss Whedon putting them back in spandex and battling orcs, but in my mind, the motley team surrounding Xavier in that final panel goes on to change the world and keep things evolving.

But, there’s one last foe to battle, and that’s the destructive force of war itself, Sublime! The first time I read “Here Comes Tomorrow,” it soared over my head, much like Volume III of The Invisibles, I struggled to process everything that was happening, even as I loved the essence of the story, and the surreal-emotional finale. It reminds me a lot of what Morrison did with “Glitterdammerung!” at the end of The Invisibles, flinging us into a future world with different rules and strange happenings to provide an emotional closure and answer some lingering questions about the run as a whole. It’s a challenging arc, but on this reread, it’s one of, if not the, best arcs in the entire run.

New X-Men on the whole gets a lot of criticism for its artistic inconsistency. And, the first year or so on the book really is crippled by some awful Kordey fill ins that don’t mesh well at all with what Quitely was doing. But, from “Riot at Xavier’s” on, this book has a series of artists who perfectly complement what Grant is doing, and give each story its own unique feel. Obviously it would have been cool to see Quitely do the whole run, but I don’t know if even he could have topped the cumulative coolness of having a perfectly chosen artist for each story. It reminds me of Jay-Z’s The Black Album, where each track has a different superstar producer and a unique feel. Because everyone’s just coming in for one arc, they don’t get worn down, and Jiminez, Bachalo and Silvestri all produce career best art. I can’t say for sure, but I think the success of the rotating art teams on this book probably inspired the similar diversity of styles on Seven Soldiers. And, in each case, the artist gives the arc a distinct flavor that works really well.

Silverstri presided over some of Claremont’s best stories in the 80s, including the fantastic “Fall of the Mutants” crossover and the over the top insanity of “Inferno.” I liked his art on those issues, but he looks a lot better with today’s coloring and reprinting technologies. I really wish that Marvel would get their act together and get Claremont’s entire X-Men run out in omnibus format, I got the first volume a while back, and had no idea that the coloring on those issues was actually pretty good. It’s just the reproduction on the single issues was awful, and didn’t display the art to its best advantage. Here, Silverstri is tasked with building an entire world and introducing an entirely new cast. He does a fantastic job, giving everything a kind of dirty, reckless future feel. It’s alien in a way that very few other comics are. This may not be our future, but it’s definitely not the world today.

The story itself has a couple of functions. On one level, it’s just about Morrison doing his take on one of the quintessential X-Men riffs, the dystopian future that could be. Morrison’s a bit more ambitious than most writers of this kind of story, building a world that’s totally credible, and not just about killing off the characters we know. I love “Days of Future Past,” but it has produced a lot of bad stories in its wake. Morrison’s gang here is enjoyable enough that it transcends the shock value of a future story and becomes a valid world in its own right.

The other, more significant level of things is the final battle between the two essential forces that have been in conflict throughout the entire run, evolution and stagnation, the Phoenix force versus Sublime. Or you could view the entire thing as a Mulholland Dr./Bardo like passage to death, in which Jean constructs this entire world as a way of coming to terms with her own passage to death, to come to terms with Scott and Emma getting together. It all works equally well, and that’s part of the beauty of the storyline, it’s a frantic mess of ideas that leaves room for interpretation while still telling an entertaining surface level story.

We open 150 years in the future, where Tom Skylark is under attack from a band of genetically modified Nightcrawlers. I like the replacement of the traditional foes in this scenario, sentinels, with a genetic creation. It fits more with the X-Men world and ties in with the concept that underlies Sublime. Let me delve a bit deeper into Sublime first off, as much of the story hinges on it. The way I see it, evolution is about adaptation, organisms modifying themselves to survive better. The ultimate destiny of evolution would be to transcend death and live forever in peace. Sublime is the genetic death wish, the drive to destroy ourselves and perpetuate old conflicts.

Virtually all of the philosophy in Grant’s works can be traced back to The Invisibles. Sublime is the ‘war,’ the us vs. them posturing that makes King Mob or Sir Miles want to destroy his enemies. It’s the war that prevents us from evolving into something better. The counterpart of Sublime is the Phoenix Force, which is evolution incarnate, burning away that which doesn’t work and leaving something that’s stronger and better. The Phoenix force is the rescue mission, and the early part of Grant’s run is all about the Phoenix in ascendance, the X-Men transcending the wars that have doomed them in the past and becoming something new and better.

The latter part of the run, specifically the battles with Quentin Quire and Magneto are about sublime in ascendance, the tendency to destroy combating the positive growth of the Xavier institute. While Quentin Quire may have had some valid points, he’s motivated entirely by hate, by the desire to destroy humanity simply because they destroyed other mutants in Genosha. Taken to its extreme, this tendency will doom all life on Earth by creating a cycle of destruction that won’t end until everyone is destroyed. Here, we get the retcon that Kick contains Sublime, making it clear that Quentin Quire and Magneto weren’t exactly themselves, they were under the influence of this evolutionary death wish. You could view that as a way to excuse their actions, but I’d argue it functions more as a metaphor. The hate that made them want to destroy humanity is given a name in the form of Sublime, but really, all that kick is is the power that we get from anger and aggression.

The future X-Men in this story are notable for their diversity and their co-dependence on each other, the opposite of the solitary Beast and his mutinous, selfish assistants. Tom Skylark is in a symbiotic relationship with Rover, the sentinel who protects him. Tom is now the hunted minority, a solitary human in a world where almost all of humanity is extinct. Now, the sentinel that existed to kill mutants, a force of Sublime, is in service to Tom, a protector and creator. Apart, they’re each powerless, together they are a force to reckon with. The same is true of Cassandra and Martha. E.V.A. is also a symbiotic being, though her familiar, Fantomex, has died. The X-Men are now a robot, a human, a brain in a jar, a giant bird, an old woman and Wolverine. It’s a radically different vision of the team, a truly post-human bunch. They’re also pretty badass, as we see in the two page spread with all of them walking through a rainy night in issue #152.

Next, we jump over to the Beast in his castle for a rant about the nature of the new universe. Why did Morrison choose to have Beast become the leader of this evil movement in the future? Part of it is a desire to tie into traditional apocalyptic mythology, having everyone refer to the beast ties into book of Revelations stuff about the “number of the beast” and all that. It’s also a spin on the Dark Beast character from the 90s, a misbegotten concept who perhaps didn’t need to return. And, on some level, I think it’s just about giving every character in the run something to do, and making clear just how bad this future is.

From there, it’s over to the Cuckoos, who are connected to a giant version of Cerebra, three sages in this desolate future. They feel very much like characters out of Greek mythology spouting cryptic dialogue about a “terrible flaw at the heart of things.” They know that this world isn’t right, things went wrong back at the end of “Planet X,” and it continues here, awaiting Jean to heal it all at the end of the arc. Notably, the Cuckoos seem to exist outside of time, perceiving things like the reader does. They ask “How did this happen so quickly?” Wolverine takes it to mean the total dissolution of society in such a comparatively short time, but I feel like their consciousness flings forward direct from “Planet X” to here, in the same way that Jean’s does.

What is the flaw in the heart of the universe? It’s found 150 years earlier, back in the present of the rest of the run, where Scott’s guilt about what happened with Jean causes him to step away from running the school and set off a chain of events that will bring the universe down. While I really like the rest of Silvestri’s art, his Emma is awful. For one, it makes no sense to wear a giant fur coat and leave it open on her barely there outfit underneath. And, the way her face is drawn, she looks like either a porn star or a blowup doll.

But, that aside, I like the concept of this scene, and the way it’s repeated at the end of the arc. Scott has been consumed by guilt the entire run, he doesn’t want to be with Emma because he thinks it will somehow be betraying Jean. He’d rather walk away and abandon the kids, the next generation for his own self indulgent self loathing. How can the world be healed? It will take the intervention of Jean herself from far in the future.

The Phoenix Egg is the mcguffin for the first part of the story, allowing Morrison to build this world and indulge in a number of cool action sequences. E.V.A and Tito versus the bunch of nightcrawlers in #151 is awesome, as is the band of early 90s style characters versus Appolyon and hundreds of crawlers in #152. There’s a majestic beauty to the panel with Rover standing in the city, surrounded by crawlers, explosions all around him.

Cassandra Nova reappears, dressed in the same outfit she wore back at the very beginning of “E For Extinction.” As we find out later in this arc, Ernst is the rehabilitated version of Cassandra Nova, but her presence here implies that she might actually be a force for positive evolution. As Xavier says in the “New Worlds” arc, it took Cassandra to force him out of stasis and start really changing things instead of just accepting the world as it is. Obviously she did some pretty awful things, but on some level, she was a force for positive change. I guess Cassandra’s presence here is the ultimate testament to what the Phoenix can do, burning away the destructive parts of her personality and leaving only the positive force for change.

Cassandra asks the Cuckoos what they see in the future, and all that’s there is “Consuming fire. The judgment of the Phoenix.” But, this is not a bad thing. The destructive power of the Phoenix scares people, but in the end, it is a positive force for change. The Phoenix will remake this world and take away all the pain within it in favor of something better.

This raises the question of what it feels like to watch your world remade in favor of a better one. For all the sadness in this world, there are still some beautiful moments. Do they exist anywhere? This is not what the future is meant to be, but the moments still happened, the feelings were still felt. Jean does not so much eradicate this future, as spin the present in a different direction. Outside of time, this world exists, but in the forward progression that will be the rest of the present day characters’ lives, it is gone.

It’s kind of like hypertime. In this story, the HCT world is the river, the way that everything flows forward. What Jean does is redirect time at the source of Scott’s decision so that the HCT world is no longer the main river, it’s a branch that dries up 150 years in the future, sacrificed so that the main timeline, the river itself, can continue on a better path, far into the future.

The dark Shakesperean feel of the Beast storyline continues as he prepares to raise the Phoenix from the fire. I love how epic this is, the fiery cave like something out of Lord of the Rings, and Beast himself shouting these over the top words, begging the Phoenix to “Arise!” There’s a lot of similarities between him and Magneto in “Planet X,” reinforcing the idea that Magneto was under the possession of a force beyond his control. The Beast claims he has waited three billion years for this moment, to finally control the Phoenix. He has overseen the wars that have guided all life to this present moment, and if he should control the Phoenix, he would have possession of the ultimate weapon, a way to stop positive change and finally win this war of absolute ideas.

I love the representation of Jean in this arc, she exists first as an entity of pure energy, more Phoenix than human. She says “I was in the crown,” a reference to Keter, the peak of the Kaballah, a place of pure divinity. She has been pulled down from Keter to serve one final role on Earth and end this war once and for all.

One of the best things about this arc is how epic everything is. We move from the fiery pits of the Beast’s lair to Panafrika, where Phoenix battles a bug mutant and ignites nuclear blasts over the plains. It’s the kind of thing that only comics can do, and Morrison manages to give us this epic imagery without sacrificing the emotional content of the story. So many people make comics that just feel like storyboards to movie, what makes Morrison and Moore so much better than everyone else is that they understand intrinsically what only comics as a medium can do. In comics, this massive story “costs” the same as two people in a room talking. That’s not to say that two people in a room talking can’t be great, it’s just that when you can depict anything, it’s a bit frustrating that so many comics remain Earthbound, using the visual vocabulary of films rather than the imagnation.

Phoenix kills Bumbleboy, then ushers him into death in the same way that Xorn helped Quentin move on out of this world. When Xorn/Magneto did that, it first read as a beautiful moment, Xorn acting out of mercy to help Quentin leave behind the pain of this world an become something more. In retrospect, it becomes one of the major examples of Xorn’s malevolence, the Magneto lurking underneath. But, perhaps he truly was motivated by a desire to help. That was the good piece of Magneto, recognizing a kindred spirit in Quentin, and helping him pass into another world without pain. In the end, we see Quentin in the White Hot Room, part of the Phoenix Force, not consigned forever to Sublime.

Either way, the scene with Phoenix holding the skull is amazing. I love the way Silvestri draws the moment, and Phoenix saying “You were always here, waiting for yourself to arrive.” It seems that the White Hot Room is the place we all go where we die, the pure energy consciousness from which all humanity springs. In the worldview of The Invisibles, it’s the supercontext. To die is to be absorbed into the White Hot Room and reunite with the universal essence we lose touch with when we’re on this world. On Earth, we mistakenly believe that we are individual beings, in the White Hot Room, we’re once again reminded that we are all part of something larger, a singular organism that is growing and evolving together.

Apollyon and Beast have a relationship similar to Magneto and Esme in “Planet X.” Beast’s hubris prevents him from seeing both how frustrated Apollyon has become with him, and the inevitability of his failure. If Sublime is about the negative force of evolution, our tendency towards self destruction, it would make sense that he constantly sabotages himself. He believes he can control the Phoenix, but in the end, the Phoenix will burn him away. Even as she becomes more and more self aware, he only rages on about tying to stop these new lifeforms from multiplying, to stop them from becoming “immortal, unstoppable supermen.” If they were to reach that level of existence, he would lose power, to him the fight against mutants is the fight to protect himself.

Next up, the X-Men go into battle to save their whale ally. I particularly like the sentient whale saying “Help! They’ll mak’ tallow and soap o’ me!” Luckily the team roars into action. Cassandra says smething interesting here, describing a painting as “Like some sad memory of a future that never happened,” which perfectly describes the very story we’re reading. We also get the fun moment where Tito is excited about doing the fastball special. Tito is a next generation X-Man, still awed by the legacy of the original X-Men, including Beak. It’s funny to hear him say that he can never live up to the legacy of his great grandfather, Beak, both because of the ironic juxtaposition of the Beak we knew with the apparently legendary figure in the future and because it makes clear that for all Tito’s mutation, the lack of self confidence is a hard coded genetic trait.

From there, we see the sad fall of Rover, who is apparently jealous of the close relationship between Tom and E.V.A. Judging from their relationship here, it’s not verboten for humans and robots to have “intimate” relations, and it seems that Tom is making his play when Rover is torn apart by an army of ‘crawlers. Rover collapses into the sea in a haunting panel where his hand reaches out even as he sinks deeper into the depths. These characters have only been around for a couple of issues, but I still really care about them and that moment hits a real emotional note.

I love pretty much any story that involves a flashback to three billion years ago, which Morrison uses in issue #154 to explain the origin of Sublime. I’ve discussed the basic concept quite a bit already, what he’s saying here is that Sublime, the fighting itself, was the dominant species on the planet for three billion years, and it’s not until mutants that someone comes along who could transcend that paradigm and create a new world. That’s what the entire run is about, Xavier trying to find a better way to do things, a way that isn’t bound up in human prejudices and pettiness, that instead helps humanity evolve and create a new world. The Beast is devoted to stopping that from happening.

Despite the fact that their relationship is at the emotional core of the run, there’s precious few scenes where Scott and Jean are actually together. I think that done intentionally to sway out sympathies towards Scott and Emma getting together, and make it clear that Jean has moved on to post human interests. Jean is a lot closer to Logan throughout the story, from their kiss in the woods to their journey into the sun together. So, it makes sense that they’d be the last ones standing in the future, debating the future of mutantkind.

The Phoenix spouts the party line, that “Extinction is part of the cycle of natural growth and death.” Sublime made her believe that no species can last forever, but Wolverine proves the exception. He personally has evolved into “a potentially viable species,” and many other mutants have to. Logan then ties Sublime into everything that’s come before in the series, and the entire history of X-Men. The X-Men are designed to evolve, Sublime is the anti-evolution. While I love the concept of Sublime, and think it enhances the story and gives it a thematic cohesion, I won’t deny that it does kind of come out of nowhere here in the last storyline.

It’s retconned in nicely, but the connections between this Sublime and John Sublime from the U-Men storyline are shaky. If that story had given us a hint that Sublime was part of something larger, it would have made more sense, as it is, the groundwork is there, but you still have to do most of the work yourself. In that way, it works a lot like Magneto/Xorn. I think both revelations do work, and I’m glad the last two arcs happened as they did, but they could have been better integrated into what came before.

Jean and Logan’s conversation is interrupted when Cassandra plunges her plane into the head chakra of the Phoenix, to “unplug the crown.” It’s a glorious moment of metaphysical action. The crown is the entry point to the White Hot Room, where individual humanity transcends into the collective entity. But, to save the world, Logan needs to tap into Jean Grey herself. Only she knows how to heal the whole in time and prevent the world from ever going this way.

In one page, we see the history that led us to this moment. Scott is the anchor of the school, and without him or Emma or Jean, Hank couldn’t keep things under control. This page has two really important functions. One is to make it clear where the hole in time began. According to Logan, Magneto killed Jean as part of his service to Sublime, to eradicate the opposing force in a never ending war. The hole in time wasn’t Jean’s death, it was Scott walking away from the school, Jean now has to reverse that decision and heal things.

Equally significant is the revelation that Kick is Sublime in aerosol form. Sublime didn’t have the hold on mutants that it did on other species, the rise of mutants, and the impending death of humanity threatened to make Sublime irrelevant, to push him towards extinction. His first attack was the U-Men, an attempt to turn mutant and human against each other. When that didn’t work, Sublime took a more covert form, infiltrated Xavier’s with the drug, and used Quentin Quire and Magneto to attack Xavier. This is the last of those battles, the moment when Jean has to make a choice between giving into her human side, and holding onto Scott, or letting him go, and transcending with the Phoenix force into something more.

From here, everything spirals into chaos. Cassandra is ripped apart, and the Cuckoos self destruct rather than be absorbed into Cererbra. Here, it’s revealed that the Cuckoos were Weapon XIV. The Weapon Plus program was started by Sublime as a way of manufacturing mutant killers. It’s notable that three of the core of X-Men here, the Cuckoos, Wolverine and E.V.A. were created or modified by Weapon Plus. The force of Sublime may be powerful, but it can be overcome. The Cuckoos are the government traitor alluded to in “Assault on Weapon Plus,” but thanks to the training at Xavier’s School, they now fight for good. While the revelation that they are Weapon XIV is kind of out of nowhere, it makes the stakes clear. It’s Emma’s training that helps save them, and if she and Scott aren’t there to teach the next generation, mutants will be doomed.

Much like in the Magneto battle in “Planet X,” the Beast emerges and the X-Men gradually tear him apart. One of the high points here is Tom screaming at him “Why does there always have to be people like you?” The answer is the Sublime force, if they eradicate that, then maybe there can be a world without power mad tyrants bent on destruction. With Tom’s life at stake, Rover emerges out of the sea and flings the Beast to the ground. But, the Beast tears them all down. I love the moment at the end where E.V.A. is dying and sees Tom as Fantomex.

In the end, as before, it’s Jean and Logan left to end things. He tears at Beast, but Jean tells him “Don’t let Sublime contaminate you! Don’t fight!” The best way to destroy Sublime is to love it, to integrate it. It’s the same concept we saw with Jack and Sir Miles back in the end of Invisibles Voume I. Logan falls, but Jean is actualized. “Did you think you would live forever, little speck?” Against the power of the Phoenix, Sublime will fall. Life has grown and flourished in spite of Sublime, and now Jean tears him out and heals Beast. Henry returns for a moment and dies, along with everyone else in a mad rush. Appolyon tearing off his skin suit seems to come out of nowhere, but just adds to the manic mood. Much like “Planet X,” we leave the battle in media res and spin off to another world as Logan hands it off to Jean.

The White Hot Room is a concept I love, an extradimensional space within the M’Kraan Crystal where the Phoenixes of many worlds gather together to help move worlds forward. This scene echoes the end of the original Phoenix Saga, when Jean goes into the M’Kraan crystal to heal a rift and save the world. Morrison makes it a more emotional thing in his conception, the rift isn’t an abstract idea, it’s the pain that Scott feels, and the only way to save it is for Jean to send him a message and liberate him to move on with his life.

There’s a lot of reference to the dichotomy between her humanity and her godhood. She talks about losing her concentration when “Heart got stuck.” She needs to play one last role as Jean before passing into the collective. The X-Men are the “parents” of the world they live in, without them all that’s left is “A badly wounded orphan universe,” a world ravaged by Sublime. But, the Phoenix can heal that. Quentin Quire appears to tell her that healing the universe requires her to “water it with your heart’s blood.”

Quentin then speeds off into the cosmos, telling her they’ve met hundreds of time and “if it was me, I’d just let it die.” Is this referring to Quentin’s possession by Sublime, in that capacity, he and the Phoenix certainly have met hundreds of times, and it would make sense that he would abandon the world to die. However, if that’s the case, why is he wearing the Phoenix outfit? Perhaps he is the rehabilitated Sublime, now serving the cause of the Phoenix masters. Notably, he refers them as “they,” like he is not one of them. The way I took it, Jean is not outside the Phoenix force, she is part of it, she would refer to “them” as “we.” This Quentin does wear his Omega Gang hairstyle, perhaps he clings to that part of himself even in this collective space that is the White Hot Room.

In the end, Jean recognizes her duty. The only time we saw her enraged in the entire run was when she caught Scott and Emma together. She was fine with abandoning Scott for large chunks of the narrative, both of them knew they were drifting apart, but a part of her still felt possessive of him and couldn’t stand to see Emma with him. That was when she gave into Sublime, now she is confronted with that moment again. She could keep Scott and Emma apart, as she apparently did the first go round, to create this future. But, in the end, she has become part of the Phoenix Force, she understands the way that petty human jealousy can tear them apart, and she gives Scott her blessing, “Live, Scott,” and is echoed by the Phoenix Force, which empowers the orphaned universe and sets everyone off in a new direction. The old world, ruled by Sublime, is dead, there will be a new, better one now.

Speaking with Emma, Scott expresses sadness at the fact that nothing they do makes a difference. He sees only the conflict, not the progress. But, they are changing things, and without him, the entire world will crumble. This is where Jean comes in, giving him the power to not get bogged down in that despair, to choose a new path for himself. Now, when Emma asks Scott if he wants to inherit the Earth, he says “Yes.” He and Emma will be at the forefront, molding a new generation of mutant minds free from the influence of Sublime, to become something better. The run ends with Scott and Emma finally kissing for the first time in the real world, Scott is free of his guilt, able to pursue what he really wants without trying to cling to an image of himself that he has outgrown. For Emma, this moment indicates acceptance. To be loved by Scott, the ultimate boy scout, means that there must be something good in her. And, because she has so many flaws in her past, Scott doesn’t have to hide any of his own inadequacies or bad feelings. Together, they become something stronger, together they will build a better world.

In the end, this whole trip to the future is about this single moment, showing how much a single person can change the world. It’s about Jean coming to terms with her passage from this world, it’s about Scott and Emma learning to live and get out of the cycle of grief, it’s about the X-Men finally triumphing over the force of self destruction and paving the way for a new world. It’s about evolution.

And so ends the only run on X-Men since Claremont’s that really matters. I’ll be back shortly with a wrapup of the run as a whole, though this storyline functions as such a successful summation of the themes, there’s not that much more to discuss. But, despite having written 10,000 words on these past two storylines, I think there’s always a bit more there.